The Magazine

Pen Pals

What draws writers together in fraternity?

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES SEATON
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Lionel Trilling

and Irving Howe

And Other Stories

of Literary Friendship

by Edward Alexander

Transaction, 134 pp., $34.95

Edward Alexander can be a devastating polemicist, as his 1989 essay on Edward Said, "Professor of Terror," memorably demonstrated. Much of the appeal of his most recent book, however, derives from his willingness to subordinate the expression of his own views to careful, dispassionate presentations of a series of "literary friendships"--notably that of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, but also Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell, Theodore Roethke and Robert Heilman, and finally, George Eliot and Emanuel Deutsch.

These odd couples come together and sometimes break up over the often conflicting claims of science and religion, criticism and poetry, reason and imagination, but Alexander's purpose is not to push a thesis for one side or the other. If he has a thesis, it is to suggest that attempts at reconciliation of the opposing claims of, say, reason and imagination, are preferable to assertions of the absolute superiority of one side or the other. His studies reveal how George Eliot and Emanuel Deutsch, Robert Heilman and Theodore Roethke, and eventually Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, achieved varying degrees of personal and intellectual reconciliation, while Carlyle and Mill, like Lawrence and Russell, did not.

The young Mary Ann Evans, contemptuous of religion in general, judged that "everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade" and even speculated that "extermination" might be the inevitable fate of "the Hebrew Caucasian." The mature George Eliot, however, provided in Daniel Deronda one of the most powerful and most sympathetic depictions of Jewish life and aspirations ever written. Gertrude Himmelfarb's recent study, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot explores the intellectual and emotional journey of the novelist; but Alexander's short essay, subtitled "The Novelist and Her Rabbi," focuses on the "rabbi," Emanuel Deutsch, whose meeting with Eliot in 1866 marked "the real turning point" in her attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

Deutsch was a scholar equally at home with Plato and the Talmud, "a living embodiment of Arnold's ideal union of Hebraism and Hellenism." Deutsch died in 1873 after suffering three years of excruciating pain from cancer, before Daniel Deronda was written, and before he could finish his long-planned work on the Talmud. Deutsch was tempted to commit suicide in the years before his death, not only because of his physical suffering but because he despaired at having accomplished so little. Alexander writes that "the only lasting effect that Deutsch's labors had was on George Eliot's writing about Jews and Zionism."

Yet the one "lasting effect" of his work turned out to be significant indeed: In her last novel Eliot "endowed Deutsch with a life beyond life in the fictional character of .  .  . Mordecai," while Daniel Deronda itself has, for more than a century, elicited sympathy and understanding for Jewish life in a venue where those qualities have been frequently in short supply--English literature.

Robert Heilman was one of the first Northerners to embrace the New Criticism first developed by Southern agrarians like John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren, while the poet Theodore Roethke "was contemptuous of literary critics," definitely including what he called "the constipated agrarians, and the other enemies of life." The two met when Heilman left Louisiana State, where he had been a colleague of Warren and Cleanth Brooks, to become chairman of the English department at the University of Washington, where Roethke was teaching poetry. Alexander observes that "Roethke intensely disliked academics as a class, and academic administrators in particular: they were all stupid or crooked or both."

Eventually, however, Roethke came to appreciate Heilman's willingness to stand up for the poet on the numerous occasions when what Alexander calls "the turbulence of Roethke's mental illness" forced him to miss classes and, repeatedly, entire terms. Defending Roethke's sick leaves with pay to the university's provost in 1959, Heilman wrote "one of the most remarkable letters ever written by a university administrator, a perfect blend of .  .  . moral clarity, rhetorical nimbleness, and shrewd pragmatism." Emphasizing how Roethke's reputation as a poet had grown while he was at Washington, Heilman first appealed to the provost "in the most materialistic terms," arguing that "no one else has given us so much free public relations of the most excellent sort." At the same time, he noted that poetry is "one of the oldest creative arts," and asserted that the university, in supporting a poet like Roethke, was "helping to create a certain type of human being and thereby contributing to the quality of American civilization itself."

These sentiments were not just rhetoric for the occasion. Toward the end of his long life, Heilman reflected that, in Roethke, "I felt something that, I came in time to know, was to be called greatness."

The brief friendships Alexander chronicles between Carlyle and Mill, and between Lawrence and Russell, did not end with such mutual respect. Alexander does suggest that whatever the literary achievements of Carlyle and Lawrence, it would be imprudent to trust their political judgments, given their shared "anti-Semitism .  .  . love of autocrats and fondness for dictatorship." In contrast, Mill and Russell seem models of prudence--though Russell's undeniable intelligence and commitment to reason did not always prevent him from making unreasonable political judgments of his own. During World War I, for example, Russell worked out a "philosophy of social reconstruction" that called for both "world government" and the "abolition of private property," as well as the elimination of "patriotism, national loyalty, and established religion"--without, of course, explaining how such revolutionary changes might be effected without adding to the violence already engulfing Europe.

Russell was not nearly radical enough for Lawrence, however, since the philo-
sopher failed to recognize the superiority of "blood-consciousness" to reason and foolishly (in Lawrence's view) "seemed still to cling to democracy." Mill broke with Carlyle when, in 1849, Carlyle published an "apologia for slavery" that presented those with African blood as "animal-like blockheads with graceful bodies, who should obey superior beings." Here Alexander's sympathies are with Mill, but he does note that earlier expressions of Carlyle's racism had not aroused similar scruples: "His racism had previously been directed against Jews and therefore gone unnoticed by Mill."

What was it that drew Mill to Carlyle in the first place, or Russell to Lawrence? Alexander wisely does not attempt an answer, hoping instead that his discussion "may shed some light on the paradox whereby the liberal and rationalist readers and critics of modern literature have so often found themselves in thrall to writers .  .  . whose reactionary politics and mystical inclinations were diametrically opposed to their own."

It would be a mistake, he suggests, to simply reject the claims of the imagination and poetry in favor of reason and science. Alexander finds in Mill's willingness to believe, at least for a time, that Carlyle had access to truths unknown to him, not a foolish credulity but a wise skepticism about the ability of Benthamite reason to explain the universe:

Here Mill shows himself to be not only the opposite of the dogmatic prophet Carlyle but also the opposite of the dogmatic liberal: He allows that Carlyle may see things by a light invisible to him, but does not therefore assume that light to be darkness.

Trilling offered Mill as a model in the preface to The Liberal Imagination, citing his respect not for Carlyle but for Samuel Coleridge. Trilling noted that "Mill urged liberals to read Coleridge" just because Coleridge "stood in critical opposition to the liberalism of the day." Mill turned to Coleridge, Trilling asserts, for much the same reasons he himself turned to the modernist poets and novelists--none of them political liberals and some downright reactionaries--to "recall liberals to a sense of variousness and possibility."

Around 1950, when The Liberal Imagination was published, Irving Howe was more likely to feel that liberals were already too inclined to indulge their "sense of variousness" rather than move in one definite direction--left. In 1954 Howe attacked Trilling, among others, in "This Age of Conformity," an essay that, as Alexander observes, lamented the failure of American intellectuals to embrace "a life dedicated to values that cannot be realized by a commercial civilization"--in other words, their failure to embrace socialism.

Yet Alexander finds a common element in Trilling's liberalism and Howe's socialism: Trilling's "critique of liberalism was analogous to [Howe's] own socialist critique of socialism, a Third Way that made both men anathema to, respectively, liberal fundamentalists and dogmatic socialists." And even though Howe's most important work of literary criticism, Politics and the Novel, takes issue with Trilling's interpretations of particular writers such as Henry James and George Orwell, Alexander observes that the work as a whole "confirms Trilling's assertion that critics of a progressive cast of mind are attracted precisely to those high priests of modernism who are either indifferent or hostile to progressive ideas." Far from applauding only novels sympathetic to the left, Howe argues that the "greatest of all political novels" is one whose condemnation of political radicalism is unqualified and unrelenting: Dostoevsky's The Possessed.

The moral and cultural assumptions Trilling and Howe shared could be taken for granted in the 1950s, but when these came under attack in the '60s, the liberal and the socialist both reaffirmed their commitment to what Howe called "the preservation of the cultural heritage." Equally repulsed by a New Left whose ingredients Alexander sums up as a "lethal combination of Stalinism and native American know-nothingism," each replied in his own way. Howe wrote "direct and cogent responses to the depredations and attempted coups of the New Left" while, in Sincerity and Authenticity, Trilling analyzed the ideas through which the modernist ideal of authenticity had led to the contemporary "glorification of insanity," leaving the political implications of this "glorification" for readers to work out on their own.

Religion in general and Judaism in particular were elements of the cultural heritage about which both Trilling and Howe remained ambivalent. Neither was a believer, but neither was entirely comfortable with the resolutely secularist worldview their intellectual commitments seemed to entail. Trilling's great hero of the intellect was Sigmund Freud, doubts about whose doctrines Trilling never permitted himself and whose views on religion are summed up in The Future of an Illusion. Trilling explicitly rejected the suggestion that his intellectual stance had anything to do with his Jewish heritage. He claimed in a 1949 Commentary symposium that expressions of anti-Semitism in English literature posed no particular issue for him, while Howe in the same symposium wrote that "gross caricatures of Jews in English literature make it impossible for one to be totally at ease with its tradition." It was Howe, the leftwing socialist, who found sustenance in the Jewish past and did what he could as a writer to keep it alive.

In one of his finest insights, however, Alexander notes that it is Trilling's prose, not Howe's, that conveys the oblique suggestion that the world and human beings are mysterious and complicated, beyond even the understanding of a Sigmund Freud. Trilling gives us, Alexander asserts, "more than a revision of the dominant liberalism of our times, more than a chastened commitment to mind, and more than a heightened awareness of literature as a criticism of life. What he gives us is a sense of yearning toward something beyond any of these."

James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.